Friday, September 26, 2008

December 2006

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has become such a pivotal figure in Hollywood that he’s now a genre. This year, “The Science of Sleep” and this film both try to replicate a Kaufman-like combination of high romanticism and existential absurdity. And both fail. But, at least, the clever set-up of “Stranger Than Fiction” keeps one hoping that real inspiration will break out.

Directed by Marc Forster (“Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland”) and written by newcomer Zach Helm, the film imagines that the main character of famous writer Kay Eiffel’s (an overly theatrical Emma Thompson) unfinished novel actually exists---Harold Crick (a stone-faced Will Ferrell) lives the same dull, orderly life as Eiffel’s protagonist. That we know this right from the get-go and understand exactly what he’s hearing when Eiffel’s voice suddenly begins narrating his life (“with a better vocabulary”) keeps the film from reaching the intoxicating chaotic rush of Kaufman’s confused creations, notably “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation” (2002) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004).

As Eiffel, unaware that her Harold Crick exists in real life, struggles for a way to kill him off, the real Crick seeks to understand the voice he hears, ending up under the council of a quirky but helpful English professor, mischievously portrayed by Dustin Hoffman (who previously mastered ersatz Kaufman in “I [Heart] Huckabees”).

Unfortunately, the film hammers away at the same nail for way too long. And, fatally, it fails to make Crick a character worth rooting for: He should be a smart and lovable person buried beneath his life of drudgery as an IRS auditor; instead he really is a bore, which makes his romance with a feisty bakery owner (the always charismatic Maggie Gyllenhaal) totally unbelievable.

“Stranger Than Fiction” isn’t without its moments, most of them in the absurd conversations between Ferrell and Hoffman. But its messages about the role of fiction in how we live our lives and, even more trite, living life to its fullest, don’t offer much substance even for a Hollywood movie.

Since Michael Mann made his name as a producer on the hit 1980s show “Miami Vice” (created by Anthony Yerkovich, not Mann), he’s become one the most accomplished American filmmakers. With “The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992), “Heat” (1995), “The Insider” (1999), “Ali” (2001) and “Collateral” (2004), he’s managed to successfully navigate the high wire between commercial moviemaking and art.

Little of those skills are evident in the movie version of “Miami Vice.” a visually arresting but confusing, loud and rather stupid attempt to cash in on a brand name. Apart than the Miami beach setting (seen mostly at night---not a single pastel building of South Beach in sight) and a black-and-white pair of narcotic cops named Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), this film could be any other second-rate drug-running picture. Mann replaces the sun-drenched hipsters of the TV show with two dudes who are all attitude and hair cuts. I wasn’t a fan of the series, but, by comparison to the film, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas played characters of substance.

The one attempt by Mann to elevate this story of a drug cartel that has hooked up with a gang of white supremists involves Crockett being tempted by the dark side while working undercover. Of course, when the temptation comes in the stunning form of Chinese movie star Gong Li (playing a Chinese woman raised in Cuba---I picked up about half of her dialogue) it makes his flirtation with the criminal world easy to blame on his libido.

“Miami Vice” manages to be convoluted without being complex as both Farrell and Foxx mumble their way through the uninteresting script. I kept cranking up the volume until I realized they weren’t saying anything worth hearing. If the iconic TV show was all about capturing post-70s cool, the film sadly reveals how vacuous that attitude plays 20 years later---even in the hands of first-rate filmmaker.

VOLVER (2006)
I haven’t thought much of Pedro Almodovar’s recent films. Critically acclaimed pictures “All About My Mother” (1999), “Talk to Her” (2002) and “Bad Education” (2004) hit me as overloaded with half-baked ideas and striking images that never added up to much. This clearly talented and ambitious director told stories I wasn’t interested in.

But his latest, “Volver” (“To Return”) finally delivers the goods; a superbly acted, complex examination of a family of Spanish women who find ways to survive in spite of abusive, cheating men. At the center of the film is Penelope Cruz’s determined, resourceful Raimunda, the mother-sister-daughter who holds everything together.

In quick succession, her aunt and husband die and what seems to be the ghost of her dead mother appears to her sister.

Smartly, Almodovar puts a comic spin on the often very grave circumstances and lets the characters react to sometimes shocking occurrences in a very natural manner. As the details and relationships slowly and quietly unfold, the film grows more profound and the multi-layered story becomes more fascinating. The director seems to have a knack for knowing just the right moment to let you in on the next family secret.

Cruz proves to be an impressive screen presence, something she never achieved working in English-language films. Speaking her native Spanish, she’s sexier, more charming, more substantial (no one’s ever written her a better part) as she creates a stressed out but resilient woman who refuses to bow to life’s obstacles.

Nearly matching Cruz’s performance is Carmen Maura, a veteran of Almodovar films, as the eccentric mother, the guardian of many secrets, who apparently died with her husband in a suspicious house fire. Also outstanding is Lola Duenas as Cruz’s dowdy sister.

No director in the last 25 years has been more attuned to the problems and frustrations of modern women than Almodovar. Even in movies that fell short of expectations (at least mine), he’s shown a deeply felt sympathy and insight into the inner workings of the female psyche. In “Volver,” he goes a step further and matches the wonderfully lively women with a memorably poignant story.

Steve Buscemi, the wonderfully weird character actor with the bulging eyeballs, shows once again that he’s nearly as good a director as he is an actor. His first effort behind the camera, “Trees Lounge” (1996), in which he starred, told the story of a small-town loser who’s searching for something to give his life meaning. “Lonesome Jim,” which opened and closed quickly in theaters before coming out on DVD, is a similar tale but filled with many more interesting characters and a dry, sarcastic script that is one of the funniest of the year.

Casey Affleck, younger brother of Ben, plays the prodigal son who returns to his hometown, a small town in Indiana, after trying to make it as a writer in New York, instead ending up working as a dog walker. At home is his forlorn brother who’s equally depressed about his life and his clueless parents, who hope he can work in the family ladder-making plant.

Buscemi and screenwriter James C. Strouse turn every character into something special, avoiding the easy cliches that mar most of these kinds of “return to the dysfunctional family” films. Affleck’s Jim, who finds some hope when he meets a feisty nurse (Liv Tyler) and her precocious, truth-speaking young son, wants to escape but doesn’t know where to go or what to do.

The performance of the film is given by veteran actress Mary Kay Place as Jim’s sincere, hopeful mother. She’s eternally finding the good side to everything and still treats her boys like they’re 10. She even takes to life in jail after being falsely accused of running drugs out of her company. At one point, Jim tells her, “Some people just shouldn’t be parents.” For once, she’s silenced.

Both Seymour Cassel as the gruff, no-nonsense father and Kevin Corrigan as the loopy brother who spends much of the film in a coma, would be the best thing about most films, but in this character-rich work they’re just one of many.

For anyone who’s felt both comfortable and trapped living in a small town, “Lonesome Jim” will bring back all those feelings and more.

BOBBY (2006)
Part hero-worshiping documentary, part miniseries, this sad excuse for a motion picture follows the lives of those staying or working in the Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, a frantic election day that ended with the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy.

Emilio Estevez, working with a cast of well-known faces, tries to show what 1968 was all about and the hopefulness that RFK represented to many. Instead, the film is a collection of trite character studies---old age, infidelity, racism, poverty, drug use are all touch on without a trace of originality or insight. If it wasn’t for the enjoyable song soundtrack and the anticipation of the horrific ending (well staged by Estevez), “Bobby” would be completely without merit. So while sitting through this mess my mind wondered…..

*Did Sharon Stone, playing a beautician, in her scene with Lindsay Lohan, warn her about the pitfalls of becoming a tabloid star rather than a movie actress?

*Stone also has a long, over-played scene with Demi Moore and it was then that I realized that in the annuls of bad actresses, Moore has no rivals.

*Remember Helen Hunt? How quickly actresses can slip off the movie star radar. She won an Oscar for “As Good As It Gets” in 1997 and had a few good roles after that, but nothing worth noting in the last five years. Here, she’s completely miscast and seems confused in her role as a unhappy wife married to a depressed man (Martin Sheen, father of the director).

*Estevez, who cast himself as ex-wife Moore’s husband, looks like he just walked out of a community theater production of a Noel Coward play.

*William H. Macy, whose character is married to Sharon Stone, is having an affair with a switchboard operator played by Heather Graham. Doesn’t that sound like a comedy?

*Ashton Kutcher (how many directors have cast both their ex-wife and the ex-wife’s current husband in the same film?) plays a pot head who turns a couple of RKF campaign workers on to LSD. Estevez’s attempt to capture the hallucinatory trip reminded me of those clueless ‘60s films that thought it was hip to show drug use. Clearly no one working on this film had the heart to tell Emilio how lame this and many other of his set-pieces were.

*I didn’t know that the same night that Kennedy was killed, pitcher Don Drysdale continued his consecutive shutout record by blanking the Pirates at Dodger Stadium.

*Laurence Fishburne, who gives the only full-realized performance in the film playing the hotel’s chef, is a helluva actor and should be getting better roles than supporting parts in crap like this.

*Elijah Wood, playing a draft dodger, will always be a Hobbit.

*Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte are slightly amusing as a couple of old guys who hang around the lobby, but they add nothing to the story.

*In TV movies, Martin Sheen has portrayed both JFK and Bobby---he’s practically a Kennedy brother.

*And finally, this film would have been so much more interesting if the director had depicted the day of Sirhan Sirhan leading up to the assassination. Instead, we only glimpse him just before he gets to Bobby in the Ambassador’s kitchen.

Two years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio was till too boyish to carry “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes. This year, at age 32, he’s become a full-form mature movie star---first as the undercover cop in Scorsese’s brutal mob tale, “The Departed,” and now as a terminally cynical Rhodesian soldier of fortune in this serious-minded action-adventure film.

In his best performance since he burst on the movie landscape in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993), DiCaprio turns himself into Danny Archer, a self-made man who’s willing to do almost anything to improve his lot, which includes smuggling diamonds out of Sierra Leone in the midst of a tribal war.

What director Edward Zwick---“Glory” (1989) and “The Last Samurai” (2003)---does very well in this film is combine the buddy adventure movie with an uncompromising political rant on the desperate fate of diamond-rich West African nations. We’ve all read about the unending strife between power-hunger tribes and the seemingly unfathomable ethnic cleansing that marks these African conflicts, but to see dramatize the process of children being turned into heartless murderers, taught to thoughtlessly kill women and children in a struggle that puts no value on life, can make you question the sanity of humanity.

Partnered with DeCaprio’s Archer is Solomon Vandy (superbly played by Djimon Hounsou), who has escape from rebel captivity after secretly burying a very large diamond. This unholy union is based on Archer wanting the diamond and Solomon needing help to locate his family, lost in the fighting. Unfortunately, Zwick adds a worn-out plot device: the persistent, spunky Western journalist (Jennifer Connelly), who spends the film explaining the politics of the region, filling in plot holes (it’s way too easy to find people in this chaotic region) and providing first-class transportation for the pair. She’s also there to give us a softer version of Archer and in that role she works well, but it’s rare that her character rises above a movie cliché.

But two very strong performances by DiCaprio and Hounsou and the incredible cinematography by Eduardo Serra---contrasting the spectacular natural beauty of the region (it was shot in South Africa) with the bloodletting among its people---elevate “Blood Diamond” well beyond the standard-issue action flick.

Ashley Judd, who impressively began her film career 13 years ago in the independent picture “Ruby in Paradise” (1993), returns to character-driven, low-budget moviemaking in this unblinking portrayal of a thirtysomething woman. Set in rural Arkansas, the film, by Hollywood standards, is virtually plotless as it follows Judd’s Lucy, a smart, self-sufficient woman who spends her evenings getting drunk at the local tavern and going home most nights with a different guy.

Despite holding a good job----she works as the assistant to the owner of a construction company (a low-keyed Stacy Keach)----Lucy has no self-confidence and builds walls around herself to avoid any real relationship. And there isn’t any question where she picked up her anti-social behavior: She can barely get a word out of her reclusive father (marvelously portrayed by Scott Wilson), who seems weighted down by the disappointments of his life.

Even when the good-looking, gentle new-man-in-town (Jeffrey Donovan) wants more than a one-night stand, Lucy keeps finding ways to sabotage their romance.

First time writer-director Joey Lauren Adams, an actress best known for her role in “Chasing Amy” (1997), captures the dead-end feeling of living in a small town but also the warm, yet unsentimental feeling of community. Judd slides right into that world, creating a character that is both a product and victim of that community. Her performance is so natural and unaffected that it’s hard to believe this is the same actress that wasted so many years making slick thrillers such as “Kiss the Girls” (1997), “Double Jeopardy” (1999) and “High Crimes” (2002).

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough roles like Lucy in “Come Early Morning” for all the excellent actresses working in Hollywood, so, like Judd, many end up working in junk. And the sad truth is that very few people are interested in seeing this kind of low-keyed character study. (In Southern California, the film played in a few theaters for less than a month.)

Carol Reed, one of the greatest British filmmakers of the 20th Century who remains criminally underrated 30 years after his death, would have turned 100 on Dec. 30. The London-born Reed, the illegitimate son of famed actor-producer Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, made his acting debut on the British stage at age 18 and continued as both an actor and stage manager until entering the film industry in the early 1930s. He made his directing debut in 1935 and established himself as a first-class director with “The Stars Look Down” (1939), a moving look at the struggles of a coal mining town, and “Night Train to Munich (1940), starring Rex Harrison in an exciting British spy vs. Nazis story.

Reed’s “The Way Ahead” (1944) remains one of the best World War II pictures, a film that mixes newsreel footage and fictionalize drama so well that many film writers still refer to it as a documentary. It’s both sentimental and tough minded, reflecting both England’s reluctant entry into a war with Germany and its steely determination. It’s undoubtedly propaganda, but superbly made.

The director’s international reputation was made with “Odd Man Out” (1948), an exciting, complex and politically insightful story of an Irish rebellion leader (the impeccable James Mason giving one of his finest performances) on the lam after a robbery and the many people that help him avoid the authorities.

I’m not sure if it was timed to Reed’s centennial, but Criterion just released a new DVD version of one of the director’s great films, “The Fallen Idol” (1949). A tense psychological thriller, the film stars acting legend Ralph Richardson as a butler who is suspected by his employer’s young son (a delightful Bobby Henrey)—and then by the police---of doing away with his wife. The superbly crafted script by Graham Greene, from his own story, is directed by Reed in a style that borrows from both the sweeping elegance of 1940s Hollywood and the character-driven tradition of British dramas.

Of course, Reed will always be best remembered for the shadowy story of corruption in a post-war, divided Vienna, “The Third Man” (1950), unquestionably one of the finest English-language films ever made. A naïve American writer (Joseph Cotton) arrives in the city to reconnect with his old friend Harry Lime only to learn that he’s just died in a car accident. When the writer refuses to believe the official version of his friend’s life and death (black market skulduggery) he investigates himself and finds a Lime more corrupt and amoral than he ever dreamed.

No film better examines the American coming of age in the cynical post-war world, the dashing allure of the crime world (in the guise of Orson Welles’ smart and suave Lime) and the failed attempt by the U.S. to control the fate of Europe. Featuring another masterful Greene script and an intoxicating performance by Welles, “The Third Man” remains as compelling and entertaining, probably more so, on the 10th viewing as it was on the first.

Reed’s most creative period concluded with the rarely shown but fascinating “Outcast of the Islands“ (1951), another tale of a British moral corruption (based on a Joseph Conrad story) starring Trevor Howard as an upstanding man who falls to the temptations of life on a Malayan island.

The second half of Reed’s career is highlighted by more popular films, starting with another Greene story, “Our Man in Havana” (1959), a very funny takeoff of Cold War espionage starring Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs. After he was fired from the 1962 remake of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” he directed “The Running Man,” a film recently shown on TCM. It certainly isn’t top-notch Reed but it’s an amusing entertainment about a married couple’s (Laurence Harvey and Lee Remick) insurance scam and their inability to escape from a bumbling, naïve insurance agent (delightfully played by Alan Bates). The three charismatic stars are able to overcome the one too many contrivances of the plot.

His next too films were the biggest hits of his career, “The Agony and the Ecstasy” (1965), an epic and rather dull telling of Michelangelo’s battles with the Pope while painting the Sistine Chapel starring Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison, and “Oliver!” (1968), the musical version of “Oliver Twist.”

“Oliver!” stands out from the rash of overblown musicals of the era because of Reed’s energetic direction and the strong performances, worthy of a dramatic film, he elicits from the great cast. Mark Lester is the innocent orphan who gets shuttled from one bad man to another, Ron Moody as the deceitfully uncle-like Fagin, Jack Wild as Fagin’s right-hand “man,” the Artful Dodger, and, nearly stealing the film, Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes, the embodiment of pure evil. These timeless Dickens characters and a popular set of songs won the film the Academy Award for best picture and landed Reed a best director Oscar.

But what seemed like the pinnacle of his career was pretty much the end. He made just two, forgettable, films in the wake of “Oliver!” and his health began to decline. He died of a heart attack in 1976.

Despite all of Reed’s successes, both commercially and artistically, he’s regularly forgotten when great filmmakers are discussed. Yet, if only for “Odd Man Out,” “The Fallen Idol” and “The Third Man,” he remains essential to the cinema of the 20th Century.

The first thing you notice about this epic of palace intrigue from China’s finest director, Zhang Yimou, are the colors. While dominated by deep China reds and sparking gold, the picture radiates with a rainbow of brilliant hues making the Forbidden Palace (a studio replica) look like a glorious center of beauty and happiness. If only. Residing in the opulent labyrinth is a dysfunctional family of Shakespearean proportions, headed by a demanding, ruthless 10th Century warlord, Emperor Ping (Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat) and his conniving and manipulative second wife Phoenix (Gong Li, the star of Zhang’s early films). Their two sons, and one by his previous marriage, are but pawns in what turns out to an all-out battle of epic purport ions between the emperor and his empress.

The much anticipated reunion of Zhang and Gong, who rose to international fame in the director’s “Ju Dou” (1990), “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991) and “Shanghai Triad” (1995) and was romantically linked to him for many years, doesn’t disappoint; it may be Gong’s finest performances. Bitter beyond words at her husband’s devotion to his deceased first wife and involved in a forbidden liaison with her step-son, Phoenix knows she is being slowly poisoned to death by the emperor while she coldly and diabolically plots her revenge. It’s a rich, complex character and Gong manages to show the empress fierce pride, unstable emotions and military-like maneuvering to dethrone her husband.

After the briskly plotted palace politics and mismatched couplings, the second half of the film turns into an incredible, “Lord of the Rings”-like series of battles between enormous armies loyal to various royal factions, with Zhang combining the one-on-one gymnastics of Chinese martial arts with sweeping, battlefield special effects.

The stunning cinematography of Zhao Xiaoding (who also shot last year’s “House of Flying Daggers,” a warm-up of sorts for this picture), Zhang operatic filmmaking and a riveting performance by Gong make “The Curse of the Golden Flower” one of greatest accomplishments of Chinese cinema, an equal in many ways to Zhang’s masterpiece “Raise the Red Lantern.”


This film is best seen on an empty stomach. After dishing out the beating of the millennium to the “son of God” in “The Passion of the Christ,” director Mel Gibson subjects filmgoers to an unrelenting slaughter and torture of an unassuming group of jungle dwellers. The lucky ones get auctioned off as slaves to bejeweled Mayans, the losers are painted blue and brought to the top of a pyramid to be sacrificed to the “gods.”

Other than the most hard-core slasher pictures, “Apocalypto” represents a new low in the cinematic depiction of horrific ways to kill or mutilate a human being. Nearly two hours of nonstop violence without a moment to reflect on what it all means, the movie not only fails to do justice to the lost Mayan civilization but is about as entertaining as a weekend at Abu Ghraib.

One has to give Gibson props for his desire to depict native Americans on their own terms, without a European viewpoint, but, in his obsessive, some say masochistic, need to frame every scene around the destruction of human flesh, he has no time or inclination to show anything positive about these people. It’s no coincidence, this film is entitled “Apocalypto”: imagine “Apocalypse Now” told only from the point of view of Kurtz and his band of murderous warriors and you get the idea of Gibson’s vision of this world.

If there is one theme that runs through Gibson’s films---including the Oscar-winning “Braveheart” (1995) and “Passion of the Christ” (2004)---it’s that the endurance of pain makes one stronger, more determined, more god-like. Here, it’s the escaped captive Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), who has to out run the best of the Mayan warriors in a seemingly impossible journey back to his village where he left his pregnant wife and young son. The chase through the dense, treacherous jungle takes up the last 40 minutes of the film and features some incredible action sequences and totally unbelievable heroics. Gibson knows action but he seems to see no need to provide meaning for it.

There’s no question that if he ever gets ahold of the right script, Gibson has the skills to make an outstanding film. But he’ll first have to give up his insistence that twisted torture and horrific deaths can substitute for three-dimensional characters and human-scaled stories.

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